Book Review: When the Body Says No

If you haven’t heard of this book and you have a chronic illness you need to get in the know. And to be fair, and I hadn’t heard of the book until about a year ago, and I didn’t actually read it until recently. The author I had heard of. Dr. Gabor Mate. He has written several books over the years on topics ranging from chronic illness to substance abuse to ADHD, and he’s quite well-known in both the self-help and medical communities. So, now that I’m done reading this (must-read) book, let me share some thoughts and opinions, and hopefully help encourage you to also give it a read.

It’s available at all major book sellers
(I got mine from Amazon)

First, for those of you unfamiliar with Gabor Mate, he is a Canadian (now retired) doctor who spent his career in family practice, palliative care, and working with people who use substances in Vancouver’s East End. And he’s touted as being an expert in these areas. The book, When the Body Says no is about how “stress” influences chronic illness. Now, stress encompasses a lot of things here, which is why I put it in quotations. It includes life stress, attachment, coping styles, trauma, adverse early childhood experiences, adult relationships, and so on. Basically a lot of stuff, though Dr. Mate posits that it’s our early life stresses that have the greatest impact on us. The book takes a biopsychosocial approach. This means it includes biological, psychological and sociocultural influences on health and illness. This is the approach that science is backing when it comes to both physical health and mental health (literally my first class in grad school was “A Biopsychosocial Approach to Mental Health”). What’s interesting, if you go online to research most illnesses (come on, we’ve all googled our actual illnesses, as well as other potential ones) usually only biological causes are listed. And I will agree with Dr. Mate, that biological causes don’t tell the whole story (and neither to strictly psychological or sociocultural). For example, he writes (based on scientific research) that some people with biological markers for illnesses never actually develop one. Why? If it was strictly biological then everyone with the biological markers would clearly develop it. Again, there is more to the picture.

Like I said, I agree with a lot of the content in the book. I mean, many autoimmune diseases are diagnosed after a person has gone through a stressful experiences. It makes sense that the body would take on what our minds don’t want to – such as a repression of emotions. And clearly trauma can manifest in many, many ways (illness, substance use, psychiatric disorders, etc.). Many people will read the book and find themselves very well represented for whatever illness they have (and he covers a lot of illnesses from cancer to a variety of autoimmune diseases to Alzheimers and so on). My only problem with it is that he asserts that attachment issues (to parents) are the #1 determinant of illness, and that virtually all people with illnesses have more than one of these issues. And this is where I didn’t find myself represented. My attachment style with my parents has always been healthy. My early childhood experiences were really good. In fact, the first trauma I suffered was ongoing between the ages of 8-13 (being bullied at school). At the time, yes, I did probably repress a lot of my emotions, but as I got older, and certainly by the time I was diagnosed with my illnesses, and I was not repressing emotion (at least as often) anymore. Now, that being said, maybe all it took was that experience to account for the psychosocial part of my illness. I can’t say either way, but regardless I don’t feel I perfectly represent the picture Dr. Mate paints in his book, though I can appreciate that a lot of people do.

My brother and I, circa 1988-89.

All of that said, I do highly recommend reading this book if you have a chronic illness OR if you have a loved one with a chronic illness. It gives insight into the causes, which some people find helpful. And if you’d rather live in the here-and-now, rather than try to decipher what caused your illness, the last chapter is called the “Seven A’s of Healing” and it really resonated with me, because for the most part, it is exactly what I work on with clients, and it is strongly evidence-based. So, go read When the Body Says No, it’s definitely worth it.

My podcast episode this week is on Creative Hopelessness, so if you’re finding it difficult to make changes in your life and/or you’ve been feeling hopeless, please check it out. Until next week, keep making the most of it!

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How Accurate Are Media Portrayals of Chronic Illness?

Chronic illness representation in the media has grown dramatically in the past 35 years, which is probably a good thing, because the more we talk about illnesses, the less stigma there is, and hopefully, the more research gets funded so that one day they may not have to be chronic (I know that’s probably way too big of a dream, but hey, gotta be at least somewhat optimistic). I think most of us can probably agree though, that many of these portrayals aren’t very good… or realistic. The main problem that I see, at least in the world of fiction, is that the stakes are always super high – it’s life or death – which isn’t the case for most of us living with chronic illness, at least not on a regular basis (and of course, it does depend what illness we are looking at). There’s also always some kind of unrealistic love story surrounding the illness, which from those I’ve talked to in real life, doesn’t seem to be the case for most people. But, we can probably forgive Hollywood because at the end of the day they’re a business trying to make money. So let’s dive into some, perhaps more accurate or partially accurate portrayals in the following categories: fictional film & tv, documentary film & tv, celebrities, and music.

Me in “Hell-A” (2018) – hopefully you get the reference to the Bran Van 3000 song.

Fictional Film & TV
This is where most of the problematic portrayals are, but there are some portrayals that are better. I’m not going to get into an extensive list, but just highlight a few. For TV, I would say Degrassi – and I don’t mean just the most recent iteration of this 30+ running show, but going back to the beginning. In Degrassi Junior High/Degrassi High (1987-1991), Caitlin was diagnosed with epilepsy, and LD had leukemia. The original series was extremely realistic in a lot of ways, which probably lent itself to doing these story lines well. A more recent version of the show apparently did a good job with a cystic fibrosis storyline.
Movies wise, I though Love and Other Drugs did a good job with a young person who had Parkinson’s, and Brain on Fire, took us through the journey of a young woman being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease. This movie was based on a true story. Of course, there are a number of other good portrayals out there, sometimes we just have to sift through the not-so-good ones first.

Caitlin (portrayed by Stacie Mystysin) on Degrassi Junior High.

Documentary Film & TV
This is a way better place to find accurate portrayals of chronic illness, because we’re actually following real people in their real lives (I do want to say that even in docs some things are contrived. I’ve worked on a few in my previous careers and we’ve had people change their clothes, or pick locations we should do things to help move the “story” along, but overall they are still more accurate than fiction). TV wise, I found a show (on Netflix I think) called Diagnosis, about a team of doctors diagnosing people with rare illnesses, that had been unable to be diagnosed by any other doctors. It was pretty cool (there was one girl who was ultimately diagnosed with somatic symptom disorder, which may be controversial for some of you, just a warning). Other docs that I liked include Gaga: Five Foot Two, which highlight Lady Gaga’s fibromyalgia; and Gleason, about former NFL-er Steve Gleason who was diagnosed with ALS in his early 30s.

Celebrities
I know a lot of people find it annoying when celebs talk about their illnesses, because at the end of the day, they have a ton of money and can usually afford amazing care and things that the rest of us can’t. Here’s why I like when celebs do talk about it: (1) it gets the convo going, (2) they often use their fame to help generate fundraising, and (3) it normalizes illness for people with and without illness. Some celebs who have done a good job in this arena are Michael J. Fox (Parkinson’s), Selma Blair (MS), Selena Gomez (Lupus), and Sarah Hyland (Kidney Dysplasia).

Music
This is the other category I would say is “highly accurate” because often the singer-songwriters are singing about their own personal experiences with their illness. Music is typically quite raw and real (some genres more so than other), and many of the songs about chronic illness feel honest. A couple we could highlight (and really there are a ton I could put here but I’m just going to pick a couple) are Believer by Imagine Dragons (about ankylosing spondylitis), Caves by Jack’s Mannequin (about leukemia), and Head Above Water by Avril Lavigne (about Lyme Disease).

What are some of your favourite portrayals of chronic illness in the media? Feel free to comment on the blog or tag me on Instagram @chronically.living_
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